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29
Oct
10

Machinae Supremacy – A View From The End of The World

Machinae Supremacy is a music group that has its roots in game music and whaddayaknow; they just released a new album – A View From The End of The World. Here’s a guest review of it, by Joakim Årbro:

Photo: Tomas Nilsén ( http://www.pixlar.org/ )Photo: Tomas Nilsén

Now, setting the mood of anything is very important.. if you do it properly and keep it up, you can literally save a bad movie, or a sub-par game – or for that matter, a musical album. After the first ten seconds, I was fairly sure I was going to enjoy the title-track of Machinae Supremacys new full-length album “A view from the end of the world”, and at track four I was bought and paid for. I realize most people who are reading this are probably already fans of Machinae, and don’t need a run-down of their style.. but I’ll give you one anyway.

Putting it simply, it’s metal with streaks of old-school gaming-music elements. A deeper look at it would be far too technical for most (up to, and including: Me.), but in the interest of keeping it simple: they’ve added the rather distinctive sound of the commodores old sound-chip SID (MOS 6581 or MOS 8580 for those technically inclined.) to their energetic and sometimes punk/pop-inspired metal. Winning concept? Well, it is for me.

Back to the album in hand. I’m not going to go into much specifics about the different tracks, but I will however mention a few of them.   A view from the end of the world is both the name of the album and the first track, and what a indefatigable way to start. Fast-paced, energetic and melodic, it just serves as a brilliant reminder of how energy can be given through music and lyrics.

The second of the three tracks I will mention is track 10: Crouching camper, hidden sniper.  Again, the energy is there right from the first second, and with a good portion of humor and ..well, catchy chorus it makes for a very enjoyable track about gaming. Just don’t sing it out loud where people who are easily offended hang around, it might land you in trouble. A most enjoyable kick in the nuts for the gamers out there, and I take it to heart a little bit more than others – they are basically singing about me. Well done!

The third and final track on my little short-list of win and awesome is “Persona”. Now this hits very close to home for me, not just with the music, but with the lyrics. It gives me goosebumps all over, in a very, very good way. This is, possibly, the best track I’ve heard in the last five years. My thinking is however, that most people who are fans of Machinae won’t agree with me on this, but this is (for me) easily on the top-3 list by them, and fuck it, if it’s not on the top-10 all artists included.

That being said, the album has downsides too. There is one or two songs that I’m not that into, but that is to be expected. What is a bit more of a problem is that when comparing to earlier albums the lyrics can be a bit hard to make out, and that’s a huge problem for people like myself who thrive on lyrics in general, and on Roberts lyrics in particular. Not a gamechanger, though – it’s not that hard to hear.

I’m also going to address something that I hear from time to time, although it’s not something I agree to. Again and again I hear that “awesome but change the vocalist!” in various states of spelling and coherence. And to summarize my views on this: Sod off, you mainstream-loving cock-smoker.

Yet again if one compares to earlier albums, this one lacks two things that I’ve come to enjoy immensely: A steve-track (you know what I’m talking about, fanboy!) and an orchestral-epic-awesome-piece. This album places a much higher emphasis on metal and in that it goes back to their earliest work. This is by no means a bad thing, but it is however a bit of change (again).

Most lyrics revolve around a central theme and one that yet again has a firm place in my heart. The quality of the writing ranges from bloody good to absolutely brilliant (and to be clear: I’m talking about mood and emotion here more than pure linguistics), the music holds elements that can appeal to the most hardcore fan but also has a huge potential to attract more fans. One should also mention that the drums are a little bit different since last album. Subtle differences, but noticeable. Having a new drummer has paid off a little bit, and this I say without absolutely nothing negative about Tomas. But it’s win.

If one is to put a number on these things, I’d put it around .. say 8 out of 10. It is however worth noting that I might be a bit biased, since I’m friends with a few of the band members, and in particular Robert, and we share views about reality as it stands that gets reflected in their music quite a lot.

But still, it’s a fucking awesome album.

8 out of 10
Joakim Årbro

17
Oct
10

Final Fantasy 13

Final Fantasy. Two words that tend to jolt many a gamer into veritable fits of Déjà vu and verbal battles over which of the games that was the best or the worst. It has been almost impossible to if not to have played one of the games in the series but then at least having heard of them. For those few of you that might not have though, know that Final Fantasy is a series of RPG games by Hironobu Sakaguchi and published by Square Enix. The games are loosely tied together by the concept of magic, a world in danger and a group of people battling The Great Evil while brooding over their own personal issues. The game series have unarguably been a critical success with over 97 million sold games over the years.

Final Fantasy 13 Characters

Yeah, 97 millions – and Final Fantasy XIII is the fastest selling of them all so far.

It is with that information in the mental backpack and being a great lover of most of the games in the series that I am going to stick my head out and start off this review by saying that Final Fantasy 13 is an appallingly poor title. There, I said it! With that in mind, let’s take a few steps back and look at what Final Fantasy 13 is:

Just as its predecessors Final Fantasy XIII is a role-playing game. This one takes place in the world of Pulse and you start out on Cocoon, a hollowed out artificial moon where you fight the Sanctum,  a government ruled by the fal’Cie, which are mechanical god-like beings. The fal’Cie are responsible for sustaining pretty much everything on Coccon; keeping the water flowing, the moon floating, light, power – you name it.

This would be all and well if not the fal’Cie were having a thing for picking out and branding some humans with a growing, tattoo-like brand and giving them a Focus to complete lest they be transformed into a mindless beast called Cie’th if they do not complete this within a certain time. These chosen ones, called the l’Cie are never told straight out what their focus really is, but must instead interpret visions they are given. If they figure out their focus and complete it, they turn into crystal and supposedly gain eternal life.

I'cie brand on Snow

I'cie brand on Snow

If all this is starting to sound like the host of a Japanese game show is standing behind the curtains and laughing while everyone jump through the hoops, don’t worry – I’m with you.

The game plays out as you run around with up to three team members at a time. Sometimes you are forced to play as a specific character with a limited choice of your team members or even alone. There are some interesting new things added to the battle system over previous games:  Here you only control one of your characters at a time, the others go on auto-pilot but you can switch to them to make them perform specific actions.

Essentially the battles play out with you increasing the enemies’ stagger meters which once filled up, makes the enemies behave differently and become especially vulnerable to attacks. Also new is the Paradigm function where every character can instantly switch to another class of fighter, Either a Saboteur, a Medic, Commando, Synergist, Sentinel or a Ravager; all these have their own purpose and skill tree to expand upon to further their abilities.

The battle system is based around something called the ATB – Active Time Battle, and is a real-time based system where your ATB meter charges up over time. Spending bars of this meter allows you to perform different attacks. The fights are visually pleasing and fluid as you switch between both characters and paradigms. Gone however, are the days of the intensive pleasing music of past games and instead we have have some generic techno beating in the background.


The Eidolons, the great summon beasts featured in almost all Final Fantasy games are still present here, and are warped versions of ones featured before. They can now transform, Shiva for instance are now two sisters that turn into a motorcycle. Yeah let us just let that one sink in for a bit. Shiva, The Great Goddess of vroom-vroom!

These Eidolons are first summoned into battle and use different magical abilities. Each of them have a summon point meter that depletes over time and when you take damage. Once these are spent or your Eidolon is beaten they vanish. You can also put your Eidolon into Gestalt mode, transforming them and letting you perform various special attacks, often damaging every enemy on screen.

As you progress and gain experience you can fill up the Crystarium which is your skill-tree, and when you reach certain points in it, you gain higher stats or new abilities. The Crystarium is an elaborate design of crystal discs which you have to not only fill up but spend points on reaching.

The Crystarium

The Crystarium

Progressing through the world does not have the random pop-up encounters featured in most of the earlier titles, which I do think is a great change. Enemies are clearly seen and battle starts once you attack or are attacked, you can even sneak up on them and automatically get the initiative if they have their back turned on you.

Enemies drop items and sometimes weapons that you can use, and depending on how well you did in the battle you can get better and/or more items.
If one thing is to be said to be unquestionably positive about the game then it is that the graphics in the game is nothing short of stunning, the characters are beautiful in detail, hairs flow in the wind and attacks are beautifully animated, the textures are well detailed and battles although busy have no slow-downs of any kind.

If you have read this far and think this might be a must-get game I implore you to read on, for I cannot go on further without unleashing The Beast of Unpleased Gamer. This is where we must re-visit the different aspects of the game and I pick them all apart:

The battle system:

The battles are beautiful, but you soon realise that you will spend most of the 50 first hours of the game just pumping the X button to select the auto battle option which fills up your ATB meter with what attacks the computer sees fitting. Once you have identified mobs his function will function even better, choosing attacks that will be most effective against their respective vulnerabilities. In earlier games you had to figure out for yourself what their vulnerabilities were, when to attack, when to block, protect, recuperate, buff yourself or debuff the enemies. You have pretty much nothing of that here and I claim that you can spend the first fifty hours of the game mashing the X button through every fight while you read a book. Note to Square Enix: STUPID AND EASY IS NOT THE SAME THING AS FUN – OKAY? I’m sorry for letting out the caps-lock dragon, it had to be done!

Looting:

I love looting, gleeing over new weapons, armor and shields and being able to craft new items out of others. This system though is deplorable. You actually spend some items to upgrade your weapons which quickly leave you with your first weapon being the best. As you get new weapons you realise that yes they COULD be better, but it would take hours of grinding to even get it up to par with your current one and so it all falls apart until the post end-game where you actually have to grind grind grind and read stats carefully to get what you need to beat certain monsters. Did I mention the grind? If I were to channel the Angry Video Game Nerd I’d call this game Final Grind 13.

The Music:

The music for the game was written by Masashi Hamazu, known for his work on Final Fantasy X, Saga Frontier 2 and several other games; and I have to say that although his piano works for FF X was decent, the music in this game leaves me less than impressed. While I still to this day enjoy and even go around humming the scores Nobuo Uematsu wrote for Final Fantasy 7, I honestly can not as I write this; even remember any of the scores from 13. Why? Simply because they’re mostly very plain generic techno and doesn’t do much at all for the world, game, mood or settings. The music would probably have done well for a slow-paced shoot’em-up, but here is just deplorable. Final Fantasy has set the level high for its scores and this time Masashi doesn’t even come close.

The Graphic:

As beautiful as it is, I still wonder why Hope literally pulls out a boomerang out his butt when a battle starts, and most of the worlds although very beautiful look dead, simply because there are no people around. Square Enix decided to do away with the non-player characters and what people you see in crowds fade around you as ghosts when you pass them by. There’s no people to stop and talk to anymore and I think this was a horribly poor decision. Although beautiful many of the environments end up looking very repetitive, especially the indoors hallways which is quite frustrating when you spend so many hours grinding down them. Cut-scenes are vivid and rendered in 1080p but hey, really – resolution isn’t everything.

Vanille and Hope

Vanille and Hope

The Upgrade System:

As much as I love upgrading, I prefer to have some degree of freedom over them. You only have a few Crystarium discs available to you until you reach certain keypoints and trust me, by the time you reach a key point you will have completed any disc you already had available and there is hardly even the illusion of choice here which makes it awfully dull. The Crystarium is beautiful and easy to use I will give it that – but that is also all there is to it.

The Story:

With the fal’Cie, the l’Cie and Cie’th being thrown your way early on in a confusing jumble, my initial reaction was that the game should have been named F’inal F’antasy 13. The names of things and characters feel strained and forced most of the time. Although the story isn’t all bad it feels as if someone forgot to give it that final polish that made things feel more knitted together and giving it that flow, this however might really be the fault of what I am to bring up next:

The Characters:

Oh yes, the characters. Let me start off by saying, that if there was a PSN game dedicated to spending endless hours of using a Playstation Move controller to beat the shit out of them all, I would pick it up in an instant. It is not as much that they’re crying and doubting themselves every step of the way or even that they are so unsympathetic and plain, as it is that that they never once veer off from their stereotypes. The one exception being Vanille who behaves so irate you just want to punch her in the face every time she says something. How about patting a guy who just lost his mother on the shoulder, saying ”that must be tough on you” smiling as if on drugs and only being semi-aware of her surroundings; only to turn her back, start humming happily to herself and bounce away? WHO DOES THAT? At the end I had no sympathy left for any of the characters and couldn’t have cared less if they had all died a slow and painful death. The voice acting is not too bad, but Vanille and Thunder vary great in quality as the actors seem to flip between British and Australian accents.

The World:

Final Fantasy 13 really does a good job of showing you a beautiful big and wild world. Especially when you leave Cocoon and enter the wilds of Pulse, where the game finally opens up a bit. Do note though, there are no side stories, no major hidden bonuses to be found through the game until that point. As a matter of fact you will spend the first 50+ hours on-rail. At most you spot a short side-track leading to a chest containing some generic item that brings no joy. The monsters and especially the clothing in this game demand a mention though. The clothes especially are nothing but stunning, varying yet keeping a theme without anything feeling forced. Whomever made these should start their own brand of clothing.

The Trophies:

The trophies for the game are mostly generic ones. Finish different chapters of the story, fully expanding your Crystarium skill trees, but some of them require a fair amount of grinding to be done. Nothing creative or really awful to be found here.

Summary:

As much as I have raged on this game, I did play through the whole main story, complaining all the way. As it stands now I am very disappointed and will not pick up Final Fantasy 13 vs per automatic, I’m more than a little sceptic and disheartened. Where Blizzard has always gone the road of Do Not Fix What Is Not Broken, Square Enix has made a point of changing something that worked in pretty much every iteration of the games, not always for the better. VG Cats summed it up really well.

If you haven’t played a Final Fantasy game before and want some very easy entertainment without any depth, this might still be a game for you. Although the game has a much higher polish than say Enchanted Arms, at the end of the day it still has that fragrance of Eau De Fail.

This is Maximilian and the caps-lock dragon, raging signing off.

Why Final Fantasy is one straw short of a slurpee:

Cry me a River – Drag the crying and crying characters through the story.
Big Bag of Nothing – So many drops, so little fun.
Barbie wants her brain back – One word: Vanille
Bring on the OCD! You want your platinum? Go ahead – grind my day!

29
Aug
10

Borderlands [Max]

If I say the words The Final Frontier, let us blatantly ignore Star Trek and think about the Wild West. In Borderlands the frontier is pretty much that – only the Frontier has moved on to other planets and you fondle, drool over and caress a bountiful of high tech weapons. Want a shotgun with a TFT screen zoom? Deal. How about a machine gun that spits fire and eats energy shields for breakfast? You got it.

There’s no denying that Borderlands is a first person shooter, but when playing it the first thing that comes to my mind is Diablo, the old click-and-kill RPG classic from 1997, where once you had finished the main story and started the game again, you would keep on going at a tougher pace and pick up new exciting character boosting items. And you kept going, and going, and going. Borderlands picked up on this simple but spellbinding concept and brought it to its weapons, but I’m getting ahead of myself, let me back up a bit:

Borderlands starts you off as one out of four characters, all with their own play style, attitude and strengths. Brick for instance is a berzerker that can throw himself into a fit of rage that while lasting lets him sling devastating punches to his enemies while hollering like The Hulk on crack. Roland, is a soldier that brings his portable turret which brings large bonuses to his co-players, and this is where the game really gets great: You can play co-op with up to four players, either online or via split-screen. My PS3 has actually had to be sent in for repairs twice because overheating after long sessions of Borderlands. Sad? Yes. Worth every penny? Undeniably so.

As you disembark Marcus Kincaid’s rusty ol’ bus in Fyrestone and the last notes of the tone-setting intro music play, the story takes you on a hunt for the rumoured Vault, plowing your way through competitors, monsters, animals and territorial gangsters and what not, often guided along the storyline by a one-wheeled droid that you’ll soon learn to build a love-hate relationship with.

The game and story slowly builds up under the first few hours as you walk around the beautifully landscape surrounding Fyrestone; all rendered in beautifully gritty brown CEL-shading giving it a cartoonish feel that really works in favor of the game, and before you know it you’re hooked: just one more level, one more monster, enemy or boss to kill; one more sweet weapon drop, one more skill, one more level of weapon proficiency and GOD DAMN IS IT MORNING ALREADY??! Yeah, that’s addictive for you.

The story line is a bit sparse given all the side quests you need to undertake to get skilled enough to continue but it is never a problem, there is a slew of interesting, rough-edged characters to meet and be amused by and they often have new things to say. I was amazed at how many sound bits that have been recorded for the game. I actually had a peek and there are near 7000 sound bits in the game. Now there’s something for other game designers to pick up on. The ambient music of the game is also well balanced to bring you emotionally deeper into that Badlands-feeling without being repetitive or disturbing.

Although Borderlands stands fine on its own for single player it is really in co-op it shines. The more player the tougher the monsters become, the better the items enemies drop are and your players’ skills really compliment eachother. Suddenly the rush of storming a town together or nervously sneaking around unknown territory to take out whatever awaits is boosted to new levels.

Borderlands have brought in several good existing concepts but has also brought something new and interesting to the game mechanic: Second Wind. If you get shot down you have some time as your sight dims; to make a kill on an enemy which brings you back on your feet, unless a friend is along and can revive you. This is a great adrenaline booster and works perfectly!

Many that have played Borderlands are sure to draw some parallels to Fallout 3 and not without reason. It’s a far stretch to say Borderlands is Fallout 3 with co-op but it does give a general direction. Another thing they have in common is the style of DLC. Both have several packs that increases your maximum character level and provides more quests and areas to explore, although I encourage you to read up on which ones you want, they’re not all worth every cent.

As for trophies, Borderlands gets a meh-rating. They aren’t impossible and do not involve endless hours of online gameplay to get which is a bonus, yet many of them are uninspiring ones such as reach level this, level that. We can live with them, we could have lived without them too. There’s at least one secret one too that is near impossible to figure out on your own which is just plain annoying.

Without dwelling on more details I have to say that Borderlands is a game that will stay in my collection and brought out from time to time, characters in the game are charmingly flawed and have a lot of different things to say, the gameplay has a great flow to it and at times pushes you to find new strategies to take down enemies and the story although no masterpiece, works to pull you along.

Having said that, I have to go sit down right now and play some more right now. HEY LOOK AT ME EVERYBODY – I’M DANCIN’!

Why Borderlands is greater than borderline…

Oh you like that huh? – All the exploding dwarf heads you could wish for.
This is my rifle this is my gun! – Bullet love and a big bag of death.
Are you talking to me? – Great variation in voice acting and sound bits.
Once more with feeling – Dangerously high re-playability.